In order to understand the long term strategic decisions that Singapore should make, it’s important to understand how Singapore fits in with the other countries in the region.
Singapore’s current strategy is aimed at “making friends” with the two global powers in the world, America and China, while developing relationships to a lesser extend with India, Russia, parts of Africa and South America, and maintaining economic ties with Europe, and the traditional partners of Japan and ASEAN.
Singapore wants to align itself with America and China, so that as we continue to benefit from this alliance, we are also able to act as intermediaries to balance the two global powers. Since our independence, Singapore has acknowledged that without our own hinterland, we have to seek out a hinterland. As relations with Malaysia were frosty then, to say the least, we couldn’t rely on them. Relations with Indonesia were terse as well. This also explains the glaring lack of trust that Singapore has towards the Malay population, because of a political fear that Singapore will lose its political sovereignty. Imbued in our leaders’ mind then were that Singapore would become a laughing stock that Malaysia and Indonesia were waiting to happen. And the leaders’ insecurities edged them on to transform Singapore.
Unfortunately, the Malays in Singapore were symbolically dragged into the fray even as the political disagreements were playing out of the larger national arena. What is essentially a political tirade among insecure leaders thus impacted the Malay population adversely, as our leaders felt vulnerable, with the thinking that the Malay population in Singapore might be used by external forces against Singapore. Rightfully or not, their fears materialised when some Malays were held under the Internal Security Act in recent years. Yet, would this be a case of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Yet, the Malays in Singapore are the indigenous population of the land. The problem isn’t with what the Malays will do. The problem is that Singapore was artificially carved out from a Malay region which doesn’t reconcile with the history of the region. When the British and Dutch divided the Malay archipelago under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824, they effectively split the Malay region according to their own political interests rather than acknowledged the historical and social truths of the region. Essentially, separating Singapore from the Malay archipelago is akin to New York being split from America or Tokyo from Japan.
Thus when Singapore looked outwards to establish a new hinterland, the decision was made to make our hinterland – the world. And thus we continue to align ourselves with world powers and to balance ourselves amidst their power. As Robert D. Kaplan said in his book, The Revenge of Geography, “a world balanced is a world free” and this is how Singapore continues to perch itself, as precariously as it might seem.
The ‘racial mix’ that Singapore seeks to maintain, is also measured against the larger picture of this balancing. In maintain the racial mix of a Chinese majority and a slightly increasing Indian proportionate population, Singapore seeks to maintain a demographic proposition to China as well as a testament to India of its growing prowess, one that is also an economic decision, as outlined in our Free Trade Agreement with India. Yet, the continued sidelining of the Malay population certainly doesn’t bode well for Singapore’s long term future, and is inherently not aligned to the history of the region.
In a world made up of larger and truer countries, Singapore recognizes that as a New York without America (or at our state of economic development then, as a Vientiane without Laos), it is unlikely that we will become internationally relevant, without our own larger country to prop us up, when needed. Thus the decision was made to make Singapore completely open where we will become the easiest place for businesses to do business. Once we do that, businesses will be attracted to the lack of over-regulation in Singapore and by extension, the world will become our hinterland. No other country has the kind of ‘advantage’ that we have, without a need to answer to a country and the corresponding citizens of a larger country. Yet, as much as we have city dwellers, they are also the citizens. So, herein lies the dilemma – as a city truly, how do you operate as a city but with having to meet the needs of a people who actually do not just see themselves as city dwellers?
As Singapore becomes the ‘hub’ that we’ve built ourselves up as, we created a new economic polity – one of a international node which, without the ‘burden’ of a hinterland, becomes a land that’s free for the world’s taking. Essentially, we’ve become a true property for the businesses of the world, which they can rent. Of course, a confluence of other factors also make Singapore the neat package – strong infrastructure, a strong legal and regulatory framework, ease of doing business, strong connectivity and links and an English-speaking population. By freeing up ourselves from having to meet the demands of the people, we become the dream that any business has ever wanted – back to the times when industrialisation first began and capitalists need not answer to its workers, where workers were made to work long hours and in poor conditions. Singapore now is a modern replication of the conditions of then.
Yet, the contradiction that Singapore lies on is precisely the flaw that it rests on – without a hinterland, a government that has geared its thinking towards planning Singapore as a city forgot to plan for Singapore as a country – for the social and psychological upkeep of the people, so much so that when the city has reached an economic standard of living that has propelled it into the league of the First World, only then did we realise that our people and politics are still stuck in Third World ideologies. A government which continues to want to constrain its people in a rich and connected country simply doesn’t make sense. The disjoint and disparity in our development has become our Achilles’ Heel.
Does this mean that our policy of engaging the America and China and neglecting our region somewhat is a pitfall for Singapore? No, this isn’t the case, for Singapore needs to adopt multiple strategies in order to stay relevant. Indeed, the states in the Southeast Asian region has always, in one way or another been tied to the fates of the larger states, like China and India. Malacca in the 1340s was a vassal state to China and as some sources have argued, Malacca had a special relationship with China and was considered a friend. This is exactly the relationship that Singapore hopes to achieve with China, and indeed, with America as well. For both countries, their stake in expanding or maintaining their diplomatic power in the Southeast region requires a strong focal point. For China, the alignment of Singapore’s demography makes it a natural partner for which to venture out from to claim it’s stake in the region. For America, what it had at one time established with Singapore mainly, is now also extended to Malaysia and Indonesia, with its traditional partner Philippines, and in fact, with the whole of ASEAN now.
Indeed, the Southeast Asian region was never a force to be reckoned with in itself, and this is really the geographical reality that Singapore is part of. As much as Singapore has carved out a niche for itself as a global node for the world, the geographical realities are such that Singapore belongs to a region which has always remained subservient to the stronger powers of China and India in the immediate region, and to the European colonialists and the Middle Eastern Islamists then. In fact, Singapore has never stood on its own for the most part of our history. We have always been part of a regional kingdom – Sriivijaya, Majapahit, the Malacca Sultanate, the Johor Sultanate and the Siam Kingdom. In fact, not only is our history intertwined with the region, the boundaries that now split Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia never existed and the fates of these states flowed with the straits that the archipelago lies in.
It is unrealistic at this point to think of a dissolution of the national boundaries, to allow our countries to align with one another again. Our recent history has created new memories, ideas of nationalism and rifts, such as racial ones, which will take time to heal and resolve themselves. However, for Singapore, without a hinterland to rely on, is our constant exposure to the world economy healthy when we are left at its mercy? We might have created strong financial institutions which can withstand the fluctuations of economic development, but without any semblance of self-sufficiency, is it wise?
It might be useful for Singapore to start exploring a regional approach and revive ideas of integration with the region once again. Our histories with the Malay peninsula and archipelago is one that the countries can look back on and envision for cooperation on a deeper level. Realistically, there is deep distrust among the countries – the Malays might not trust the Chinese. Also, the countries are at different levels of economic development.
But, yet, should we take these at face value and discount the cooperation simply because of past animosity created by the first generational leaders? Why is there distrust among the Malays and Chinese? It is one thing to accept the disagreements as natural and another to look at them to understand how they had developed, and what we can do to do things differently. Once upon a time, the Malays, Chinese and the Indians worked side by side. We spoke the language of one another and we would help one another in times of need. Before the idea of statehood as we understand it now came about, people were working together and we were friends. What changed? Because of an imposition of artificial boundaries in a period of global nationalism which created insecurities among peoples, which led to our leaders grabbing power from one another and distrusting one another? Is the inter- and intra-national distrust a reflection of our leaders’ insecurities and distrust towards each other, one which has arose over their want of power, and one that has become the national consciousness of our countries because of their strong rule of power?
It is in Singapore’s long term interest to have strong and friendly relations with the region, and especially with Malaysia and Indonesia. One day, when Malaysia and Indonesia attains a stage of economic development where they have significant bargaining power, where will that leave Singapore, not only with them, but with world powers who will shift their focus towards Malaysia and Indonesia, if they are not already shifting? One day, if world powers are able to influence and connect with millions more people in Malaysia and Indonesia, what significance will Singapore have?
In fact, when Kaplan spoke of how for “America, I believe, will actually emerge in the course of the twenty-first century as a Polynesian-cum-mestizo civilization, oriented from north to south, from Canada to Mexico,” what he speak about halfway around the world can similarly be applied to Singapore as well, albeit on a much smaller scale – where it is in our interest to align our interests with the north and south of our borders. Indeed, when Kaplan spoke of how if America were “not to continue to deepen links with Mexico and Central America … would be to see Mexico and perhaps some of its southern neighbors slip into a hostile diplomatic and political orbit,” what he says is ominous to the state of affairs of what can be in our region. Kaplan also spoke of how, “a border between a highly developed society and a less highly developed society will not attain an equilibrium, but will advance in the more backward society’s favour. In other words, the preservation of American nationalism … is unachievable unless Mexico reaches First World status. And if Mexico does reach First World status, then it might become less of a threat, and the melding of the two societies quickens.” In short, Kaplan suggests that, “this vision requires a successful Mexico, not a failed state.”
Yet, is Singapore comparable with America? In terms of geographical and political might, no. Yet, when played out on a much smaller scale, as it is in the maritime Southeast Asian region, Singapore is economically more developed as compared to the lesser developed but steadfastly growing economies in our immediate north and south. It would be wise to take a leaf out of Kaplan’s book to note how in ensuring the stability of not only Singapore but also of our region, integration and friendship with our region will only be beneficial. And as Kaplan had also mentioned, this means that we should work with our neighbors to also provide them with the necessary support, to uplift the region together, and then towards equilibrium.
Yet, this might seem like an arduous task, some might remark – for how is Singapore to integrate back with a region which we have learnt to reject, and which has learnt to reject us back in return. Several levels of change would need to happen in order for us to find renewed cooperation and dynamism within the region. Singapore would need to embrace and acknowledge the indigenous population of our land, but not only that, Malaysia and Indonesia would also need to accept the shift in demographic changes that have occurred in their countries as well, to create the diversity that exists in them today. In short, these countries would need to let go of their insecurities and embrace their history and the changes that have come along since. For Singapore, we have to acknowledge the reality of our history and use that to extend our friendship with the region. For Malaysia and Indonesia, they would as well have to let go of their colonial past to find renewed confidence in moderate Islam to guide them forward in a new era of development and cooperation.
Between Malaysia and Singapore, we’ve already started making headway in our economic relations, such as the joint development in the Iskandar region and the planned construction of a high speed railway to connect Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. In some sense, we are bypassing the fixed imaginations that our boundaries divide us to look into the connections that our history unite us once again. Malaysia and Singapore are thus taking the right steps towards embracing a common history that unite us, so that we can once again fulfill the destiny of our region. However, the current cooperation continues to be an extension of economic goals. As much as both our countries have gone on divergent paths over the past few decades, our common sole focus on economic development, whilst being trapped in outmoded forms of governance and societal impediments is something that both countries share. In order to truly relive the unity and dynamism that the region can bring, we need to reform politically and socially.
In 1994, the Singapore-Johor-Riau (SIJORI) Growth Triangle was established between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. Has the growth taken off? It seems that the SIJORI has been superseded by the growth of ASEAN as a region. However, the partnership has also managed to take off between Malaysia and Singapore, more so than between Indonesia and Singapore. Some reasons would be because there was a change in leadership in Malaysia and Singapore which provided renewed vigour to put aside differences to pursue new growth areas. On top of that, Malaysia was also growing economically more vibrantly. On the other hand, Indonesia’s growth had largely centered in Jakarta. The Riau Islands might just be too far away from the Indonesian capital to be significant. This shows up on the enforced political differences that the British and Dutch had when they the Riau Islands became Dutch and now Indonesian territories and Singapore became the British and now Singaporean territory. This division which doesn’t represent the real cultural and political meanings has created present illogical geographical situations – the Indonesians simply do not think that the Riau Islands are central enough to their polity.
Yet, from another viewpoint, Singapore might need to look beyond our own imaginations. When the SIJORI Growth Triangle was mooted by then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 1989, he had envisioned a hinterland in Johor and the Riau Islands. But in regional cooperation, it isn’t just about what makes sense to Singapore. It’s also about what makes sense to Indonesia and Malaysia. Perhaps the project didn’t take off as much until now because the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia didn’t see the benefit as much as Singapore did. However, Singapore has now reached a stage where we are growing at our seams. Also, Malaysia has in recent years decided that developing Johor to tap on Singapore’s growth might also have benefits in spurring the growth of the Malaysian economy. At the same time, the Malaysian Prime Minister has also decided that he wants to continue centralising growth in Kuala Lumpur, and yet partner the growth with Singapore by thus constructing a high speed railway between the two key cities in Southeast Asia. We are thus meeting at the right time once again.
On Singapore’s side, we would need to also learn to understand that Indonesia would need to see value in developing the Riau Islands. Otherwise, Singapore would need to understand the importance of the role that Jakarta has among the Indonesian leaders. Afterall, during the reign of the Majapahit kingdom, their capital had also been located on the island of Java as well. However, as Singapore learns to become more open in sharing in our growth with our neighbours, they might also learn to trust us more and explore further options with us. As mentioned, this is what Malaysia has done with the Iskandar region, and also in jointly developing two office buildings in Singapore. For Indonesia, they are also currently exploring relocating their capital in view of congestion, or in developing a second capital city. If they can see Singapore’s sincerity, they might even explore restarting the development of the Riau Islands, so that together, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore can grow together to develop a larger core economic region in the Southeast region, which will allow us to have a larger representation on the world stage, and achieve better equilibrium with the other world powers.
In order for us to achieve this, Singapore, as well as Malaysia and Indonesia, will need to understand the inherent fears and insecurities that they’ve been holding on to since parting ways with their ‘colonial masters’. This also requires political will to reform politically, economically and socially to kick start the region into a new dynamism. For Singapore, as we continue to go on the route of perform the balancing act between America and China and in future, Russia and India, we need to explore more seriously how we need to strengthen our ties with Malaysia and Indonesia. One day, we will need them more than they will need us. One day, we need to achieve self sufficiency within a cooperation framework with our two closest neighbours, with which we share a common history and with which we belong to. We might be separated politically by means of artificial boundaries which constraint our political cooperation. However, the history that we share, where the fates of Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore are intertwined over more than a thousand years, is something that is rooted in our natural and geographical history.